I find myself thinking about my mother now long dead. My auntie, my “junior mother,” more recently dead. And, looming behind their mother, my grandmother. All now among the great cloud of witnesses.
A few years ago I wrote a sermon for Mother’s Day. And in it I outlined my experience of these women.
It was my grandmother who was our family anchor and spiritual center. Boline was a prayer warrior, who I admit in my well-polished memory, is Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad in the Grapes of Wrath. When her husband abandoned her with two small daughters, she did what had to be done.
In her case the girls went into an orphanage as she paid the costs working as a live-in maid. It was hard and sometimes demeaning work. A family story that has traveled down and lodged in my heart was of her humiliation once when being accused of stealing food. My sense is she may well have needed it. I can only think thankfully not for her daughters. But, also, her fierce dignity that probably would have led her to starve before stealing to feed herself. And with that my absolute certainty of the falseness of the accusation. Today, I carry that wound as if it were my own physical memory.
Recently I had a conversation with someone who marveled at mothers sending their children across our Southern border, and wondering how a mother could possibly send their children unguarded into a strange country. I think of what my grandmother did and would have done. And, I understand the hallowing power of love, and the reckless giving it can call out of us when things are truly terrible.
And, there were two more mothers, mothering spirits. My biological mother and my auntie. My mother, Barbara, if I’m going to continue to use film analogies is probably a lot like Oliva de Havilland’s Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, without, need I add, any of the social advantages. My people didn’t have advantages.
In our family drama, she was the victim. She had a hand in it, but ultimately she was buffeted by circumstances beyond her control, she nearly always was acted upon, rather than the actor. Here, I find some of the less healthy parts of the real in mothering for my life. But, also, her never wavering love if also often ineffective for my brother and myself was palpable, and important in several ways.
Even when manifesting in weakness, love has an astonishing curative power. Thanks to her I never thought I was unloved.
And then there’s auntie. Julia was the younger daughter. She never left home; she lived with her parents, then her sister, and then, with Jan and me. Reaching for a film image, none of those stereotypical maiden aunts work. The problem is we can’t capture auntie through the world of action; it’s the world of dreams that fits her. So, for me, I guess she will eternally be Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, mischievous and eternally pre-pubescent. As a kid she was the source for comic books and trips to museums and long walks to find strange things. My brother and I never really thought of her as a real adult, more a co-conspirator and sometimes instigator in our kid lives. For me today, I’d say she was my junior mom. Another angle on the mothering spirit.
And, helping me along as I reflect on mothers and that idea of a mothering spirit, I would have two lives with these women, or, at least my mom and junior mom. One of them as a child, and the other as an adult. Some thirty years ago I accepted the call to my first ministry in the suburbs of Milwaukee. My grandmother had died a couple of years earlier. Watching my mother’s and aunt’s financial circumstances turn dire, Jan and I decided we had to move them in with us. They brought their limited social security income and a small, rapidly dwindling savings account, which turned out to be just enough to give us the down payment on our first home. We all pooled our income as a single-family unit. And it worked. We had our rough moments, but it worked.
The four of us lived together until 1997 when following a recurrence of breast cancer my mother died. That last week I was out of town at a conference. But before it was over Jan called and said that I needed to get home, and quickly. I booked a flight that day and returned. When I got to the house and walked into her bedroom where she now slept and lived in a recliner chair, she took my hand and said, “I waited for you.” She died later that day.
Then it was three of us. Auntie was with Jan and me for twenty-three years. She died in the midst of the run up to our retiring and getting ready to return to California. About six years ago, now. For her, it, too, was a recurrence of breast cancer. As I’ve already said auntie’s life was lived mostly within her imagination, helped along the way by Romance novels of a supernatural sort. She liked nice dragons and good vampires. We never drove by a bookstore she didn’t want to stop at, to rummage through it to find old friends and new. While she never got to occupy the bedroom meant for her in our condo in Long Beach, we still refer to it as “auntie’s room.”
She taught me dreams are real, too…
I think of these three women who occupied mothering places in my life.
I recall their names. Boline. Barbara. Julia.
I remain grateful. Always grateful…